The number of students who are displaced or homeless increased by 30 percent from last year even while school district officials speculate there are many more whom they're still not reaching.
During the 2011-12 school year, 645 students were documented as "homeless," which includes those who don't have a permanent address and have to stay with a neighbor, friend or other family member and those who live in substandard housing, hotels or shelters.
That number is an increase of 148 students during the 2010-11 school year, when 497 homeless students were recorded.
Shanika Figueroa, a social worker for the school district, said the number used to be much lower — 165 students in 2009-10.
However, she said, each year her office is finding more and more cases of students and their families being displaced from their homes.
"It's not because their parents are lazy," Figueroa said. "There are a variety of situations that come up. And for those already living paycheck to paycheck with no emergency funds, they find themselves in situations that before they only thought happened to someone else."
In some cases, she said, family members get sick. Others lost their jobs or discovered the home they were renting was foreclosed on.
As a result, she said, she finds more and more cases of students whose living situation is left up-in-the-air. Some hop from one home to another. Others stay in motels or need to be placed in shelters.
Last year, she had 25 living in abandoned homes, cars and campgrounds. This year, she knows of one student who is living in a barn.
"The good news is one of the reasons the numbers are increasing is that more people are becoming educated as to the services that are being offered," Figueroa said.
"Before many people were especially embarrassed to seek help, but with the economy getting worse, people are really desperate. And as more people learn what options are available to them, they pass on that information to others they know in similar situations," Figueroa said.
Along with helping place students in more secure housing situations, Figueroa said, programs are available that involve collecting backpacks, school supplies, food, toiletries and other items. She even has parents who have volunteered to help and routinely make drop offs.
"The community has really stepped up to the plate to help students in need," Figueroa said. "Anything the students need, they're there. Much of what we do wouldn't be possible without their help."
Meanwhile, those interested in donating goods can contact Figueroa at (352) 797-7008 ext. 132 or email her at Figueroa_s@hcsb.k12.fl.us.